How Does This Joker Get Published? Pt. II: A Children’s Treasury of Bret Stephens’ Insights

by Joshua Foust on 5/12/2009 · 3 comments

I’ll never understand the logic of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, especially their “foreign affairs” columnist, Bret Stephens. This is a man who won awards for his reporting of the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, yet wrote disturbing hagiographies about Perves Musharraf even while the entire country was organizing itself in revolt against his rule. When a Republican was in the White House, Bret Stephens wrote off concerns about the failing war in Afghanistan as liberals whining, yet after 21 days in office declared the Democrat’s Afghanistan strategy dead on arrival, and all of Bush’s successes in Pakistan, he said, were instantly undone by the new administration. After three weeks in office.

Now, Bret Stephens has struck again, declaring Pakistan “not India,” a state that, like Palestine, is “defined negatively.” Not only is that a gross mischaracterization both of Pakistan (which is defined as an Islamic state, not a “not Indian” state) and Palestine (which was a territory called “Palestine” before the UN invented Israel in 1948), but the entire essay is riddled with ridiculous assertions and errors of fact. A brief sample (all emphasis is added by me):

  • About Iran, Henry Kissinger once asked whether the Islamic Republic was a country or a cause. About Pakistan, the question is whether it’s a country or merely a space.
  • Today, Somalia is a space not even pretending to be a country. The result is destitution, piracy and a sanctuary for Islamic jihadists, but little by way of ideas for how to change things. Historically Afghanistan has always been a space, defined mostly by its power to repel: The Obama administration would be smart to take this into account by keeping its expectations for nation-building low.
  • Pakistan’s odd distinction is that it fits all three descriptions at once. It is politically weak, ethnically riven, and a master of plausible deniability — an art it has practiced not only toward India, Afghanistan and the U.S. with its support for various “freedom fighting” groups but also, in the matter of the CIA drone attacks, toward its own people.
  • The roots of Pakistan’s problems go to its nature as a state. What is Pakistan? Even now, nearly 62 years after its founding, the best answer is “not India”: As with the Palestinians, Pakistani identity is defined negatively. What else is Pakistan? As with Iran, it is an Islamic Republic: Punjabis, Pashtuns, Kashmiris, Balochis, Sindhis and so on are only really knitted together in their state as Muslims.
  • Pakistanis, who have repeatedly defeated radical religious parties at the polls. But rejecting clerical politics is not quite the same thing as accepting secular ideals. It’s also hard to sustain republican hopes when the practical results — in the persons of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and current President Asif Ali Zardari — have been so consistently dismaying.

Using these criteria, one wonders how Stephens would define the United States: are we driven by causes, some sort of collective adherance to an ideal, religion (rejecting clerical politics is not the same as embracing secular ideals), or philosophy? Pakistan was founded on the ideal of having a state for Muslims in South Asia—a refuge, if you will. Indeed, Stephens’ entire point in writing that essay is… I think Pakistan isn’t really a state but just some territory no one controls, like Somalia? I don’t really know, and he doesn’t really make it clear.

Which is the problem in the first place. What, exactly, is his point, and how is it that the WSJ thinks it okay to publish a meandering collection of unsupportable aphorisms? Actually, since it’s the opinion section, I suppose that question answers itself. How sad.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 3 comments }

T. Greer May 12, 2009 at 11:24 am

Remind me never to make you angry.

Joshua Foust May 12, 2009 at 12:14 pm

Nah, this isn’t me being angry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.

T. Greer May 12, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Yeah, I saw your little hissy fit over the last Kaplan essay. You are right; you write a better when your ire remains unkindled.

So please allow me to revise: Remind me not to ever write anything ridiculous enough to spark your contempt.

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